Updated: Jun 29, 2019
My mind has been running on Gwydir Castle in North Wales after the cellars and surrounding gardens were inundated by floods this March. It shows how important emergency funding can be.
The trustees of the Historic Houses Foundation provided funds for the construction of a temporary wall made of 16,000 sandbags and stretching 400m along the garden perimeter as part of emergency measures to protect the house after flooding threatened in September. To our dismay this sandbag wall was breached by floodwaters on 16 March and water inundated the gardens and cellars.
Is Gwydir Castle important?
Building started at Gwydir when the Tudors came to the throne. In Wales, everything changed when Henry VII became King in 1485. His accession brought an end to the Wars of the Roses and he lifted the penal laws which had suppressed the Welsh since the rebellion of Owain Glyndwr a century earlier.
The castle was largely built by John Wynn, one of the first generation of successful lawyers that came to national prominence under the Tudors and founded their family fortunes. He surrounded his new house with extensive gardens in 1555. Today both house and garden are listed Grade I and have been restored over 25 years by Peter Welford and Judy Corbett.
Why did the flood happen?
Gwydir Castle sits on the flood plain of the River Conwy. Throughout its 500 year history the risk of flood must have been ever present, but the house is carefully sited above normal water levels. For evidence that the valley below regularly flooded you need look no further than the remains of an Elizabethan causeway which must have allowed the builder of Gwydir, John Wynn, to reach his quay on the river even when the waters were high; it was John who first made the river navigable.
There are many, much discussed reasons why floods in this region seem to be more frequent. Climate change, development on the flood plain and the draining of low-lying land are all factors. The nearby town of Llanrwst has experienced flooding repeatedly between 2004 and 2019. The owners feel that the Conwy Valley Flood Alleviation Scheme, initiated 8 years ago, may have increased the risk to Gwydir Castle.
In devising the scheme, no consideration was given to Gwydir Castle, a Welsh Government spokesman stating, “We recognise the historical significance of Gwydir Castle and its value to the Welsh cultural and physical landscapes. However, analysis by NRW has concluded there are insufficient benefits to justify a flood alleviation scheme at Gwydir Castle.”
When the River Conwy rose in September 2018, flood defences at Gwydir looked urgent and the sandbag wall was erected as a temporary defence. For the Historic Houses Foundation, the protection of a building as important as Gwydir was clearly a vital cause. The Foundation’s ability to make quick decisions and to provide small but significant amounts of money was an important factor. In the event, the sandbag wall was not enough. Water penetrated the cellars of the house and the panelling and leather wallcovering of the dining room above has had to be protected from damage with de-humidifiers.
This room itself has an extraordinary story. The castle was sold out of the Wynn family in 1921 and most of the contents were stripped out. The interiors of the Oak Room and Dining Room were bought by the American newspaper baron, William Randolph Hearst and bequeathed by him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Peter Welford and Judy Corbett traced the lost Dining Room interior and persuaded the Met to sell it back to them in 1995.
Today the restored 17th century panelling, leather frieze, fireplace and carved doorcase form one of the most complete surviving interiors from the 1640s at Gwydir. Charles I visited Gwydir in 1645 as a guest of his old friend Sir Richard Wynn and must have been entertained in this grand room before the Civil War. Meanwhile, Peter and Judy continue to try to trace the Oak Room interior.
Emergency aid for historic buildings
If historic levels of flooding are to be exceeded in other areas of Britain, a nimble and quick responding Fund, like the Historic Houses Foundation, seems more and more important. Our role is to protect historic buildings in return for some public access. While something like the sandbag wall is not itself historic, it may have made all the difference in this case by preventing worse and earlier flooding.